Interview Hindi

Audiences shouldn’t feel you are acting, they should just feel the character: Priyanshu Painyuli

Painyuli, who turns a year older today, shared his experiences making the Netflix film Extraction earlier this year and spoke about his career in film and theatre so far.

Sonal Pandya

With one of the biggest releases this year for Netflix, actor Priyanshu Painyuli is flying high. According to a Bloomberg report, Painyuli’s international debut Extraction (2020), starring Chris Hemsworth and Randeep Hooda, had 99 million viewers in its first four weeks of debut. 

When spoke to the actor before the film's release, Painyuli was understandably nervous but excited about his international debut. He had been keeping busy during the lockdown watching shows like Money Heist and This Is Us and films like Angrezi Medium (2020).

He even discovered his inner chef, stating, “I’ve also become a masterchef now. I’ve been experimenting with different kind of dishes and learning them online.” He also used the time at home to rediscover old hobbies, especially reading up on his favourite filmmakers and how they approach their work.

Promoting Extraction during the lockdown was a new experience, especially because the original plan was to have director Sam Hargrave, producers Joe and Anthony Russo and star Hemsworth come to India. The team, including Hooda and newcomer Rudhraksh Jaiswal, then promoted the film from their own homes.

Painyuli, who will be seen next in Mirzapur 2 and Rashmi Rocket (2021), spoke about his time working on Extraction, his theatre days and his breakthrough film, Bhavesh Joshi Superhero (2018). Excerpts:

How did Extraction come your way? Did you audition for it?

Like any other project, I auditioned for it. I would call it one of my most interesting and challenging auditions ever. I was told to speak in Bengali. Tess Joseph, who cast for this film, had called me and thought I’m a Bengali because of my first name. A lot of people have been confused because of that. I told her no.

That’s always been my introduction, I’m a North Indian from South India. I come from Dehradun, that’s my hometown, but I grew up in Bangalore. So I can understand, speak [Kannada] and I watched a lot of South films. But Bengali was nowhere.

But a great thing happened that [Tess] gave me this opportunity to audition for it. She said, ‘I’ve seen you perform and if you would want to, it’s a very important role for a very important film.’ She wouldn’t give me more information, but I said okay, let me try, and because I had done languages on stage a lot.

Another person I have to be really grateful to is Ronjini Chakraborty. She is an actor and a very good friend. I told her this is what is happening, I’ve got to send some Bengali voice notes to Tess. She helped me for the audition and to learn these lines, to understand them and do the diction.

Your character, that of a Bangladeshi warlord, is quite different from the roles you have played in your career so far. How did you get in character?

Any role takes you time, when you say a little hatke, it’s not your usual boy-next-door. This one, the kind of production of the film, the kind of prep they gave you was brilliant. They got me a dialogue coach three months in advance. [A] guy called Raffael [Ahsan], a young Bangladeshi filmmaker, came in as a language coach for all of us, me and all the gang members.

The good thing that Sam Hargrave has done is the scenes in India, people are speaking Hindi, everybody in Bangladesh is speaking in Bangla. Nobody is speaking in English. Everybody is playing authentic roles.

For me, to look authentic as a mafia [boss] and as a gangster Bangladeshi, the language was the whole thing. You have to learn, word by word, and keep it at the back of [your] mind, because while performing, it shouldn’t come in front of me. I used to be tense, frankly, every day on the set. It’s a new territory, first of all, international film, big cast, big unit, you’re watching a big-scale production and you are speaking Bengali!

[Sam] was very confident that I would pull this off very well, the language, that I would take care of it. That boosted me, the trust in me, for myself to play a part like this. The character is also built by the team. They gave me the look. Heavy gold was put on me, which makes you feel like a gangster any way. I’m introduced in the film as ‘Pablo Escobar of Dhaka’, so all that comes together. They give you those clothes and the shoes, it really helps you be in that part.

Another thing was Sam and I had a back story for this character, which you can’t see in the film, but it really helped me to perform when doing the scenes. You do all these things, it had to be done, you always put your best foot forward when you are nervous and excited.

With Extraction (2020) director Sam Hargrave

The Extraction cast was a mix of Hollywood and Indian artistes. How was your equation with them on set? 

For me, it was like wow! I’m a fan of most of them. [They are] brilliant actors from the West, if you see Chris, Golshifteh [Farahani], David Harbour, I’ve been a fan of his, watching Stranger Things [the television series]. And then working with the Indian cast, there’s Pankaj Tripathi and Randeep Hooda. I said this is a brilliant cast where I’m going to be involved and play a major role.

In my mind, I said I could up my game and put my best foot forward, so I think that also helped me to push myself. I haven’t done scenes with most of them, but meeting them, they are so cool, relaxed and focused on their work. It doesn’t feel like you are meeting a global star, you are meeting Thor. That was the best thing.

This is your first international film, and during the lockdown period being on Netflix, it was likely to get a lot of views. How does that make you feel? Do you think this will cause a shift now, with makers looking to go digital more?

The web has [got] a big boost in a couple of years, particularly the past two years, and the kind of films that are being made specifically for web are also high-budget. We anyway knew that Netflix is taking this to another level, whether pandemic or not. The lockdown, unfortunately, happened, nobody wanted it. [It] came as a surprise.

[But] our film was anyway lined up for Netflix, our film was anyway one of the big releases which we were all looking forward to on Netflix this year. So we were all like [ready], it’s just that our presentation, our promotion of the film would have changed, but it would have still been a big release. Just that now people are at home so maybe on day one itself, millions watched it, which anyway globally Netflix has that reach.

That’s what Randeep and everybody have been saying, it’s such a big action film that in these diminished times, [it can] boost them up and give them a fighting spirit. We’ve been [saying] an Extraction is a good distraction for people.

Before you began acting in Rock On 2 (2016) and Bhavesh Joshi Superhero (2018), you were involved in theatre. How has that prepared you for films?

I was lucky that I knew the technical side of theatre because I had done it back in Bangalore where I grew up. I joined Rage Productions [with] Rajit Kapur and Shernaz Patel, a very old and one of the finest production houses in India. They have been doing this for 20 years. When you see these legends on stage, you will learn a lot.

I was doing backstage, sound [and] set work for the plays for a year, I think. And then I got an opportunity to do my first play which was directed by Rajit Kapur and that is when I learned so much from him, that audiences shouldn’t feel you acting, they should just feel the character [and] the emotion of that scene.

They should not be looking at Priyanshu or that I’m acting it out. For me to get that, I’ve got to really understand this work, really understand the scene, and try to make it as real and honest as possible, and not act that part. I let people connect to me, and I think it is lucky that, on a film shoot, people have to learn a lot and learn more and try to experiment with myself like I’m doing now with Amir Asif.

I did so many comedy plays with Akvarious [Productions], [with] Akarsh Khurana, where he makes you play everything and anything. I’ve played Hanuman, a 60-year-old man, a kid. With him, most of these actors, we love to do plays with him. You break away from any inhibitions. You’re so open to experimenting with anything that comes to you, you say that I can maybe tap into this. 

In Bhavesh Joshi Superhero (2018)

How did the film Bhavesh Joshi Superhero open doors for you?

Bhavesh will always be special to me. It is, I would say, a breakthrough for me into the industry where it could understand me as an actor. [Filmmaker] Vikramaditya Motwane is really close to that character, and I am very close to Bhavesh Joshi because I also feel a little bit of Bhavesh in my life. We worked on that part, we made a graph over it, the way they shot it [and] the way it’s scripted.  So, after the film, the overwhelming response to the performance, it took me time to understand that people have emotionally connected with my character.

I got loads of messages from people who messaged me on Instagram saying they cried when I died in the film, or they really wanted to watch me more and they believed in what Bhavesh Joshi believed. Industry-wise also, people started messaging me, I got calls from producers, directors, [and] I met them. So my doors opened for these offers based on the [belief] in me as an actor. Definitely more interesting projects came my way. Now I’m just looking forward that such roles and such meaty stuff keeps coming my way.

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